Gabriella Kagay: A Bright Future Reclaimed

Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson March 15, 2011 08:48

Gabriella received her master's degree in December 2010

Respect, appreciation and deep gratitude punctuate Deborah Kagay’s sentences as she talks about her family’s experiences with the Shriners Hospital for Children in Sacramento.

The hospital, one of 22 supported by Shrine clubs in the United States, Canada and Mexico, is noted for its pediatric orthopedic and burn care services.

In March 1999, Deborah’s older daughter, Gabriella, was wheeled into the Sacramento operating room for the first of two delicate and difficult spinal surgeries. It was her 13th birthday.

The medical care was exceptional, Deborah said, the staff extraordinary. Yet the path to that help was difficult.

Gabriella began having severe pain in her low back and down her left leg when she was 11 years old. Always active, the Twain Harte Elementary student had been taking dance and gymnastics classes. Suddenly, she could not perform and even had trouble standing.

Looking for answers, Deborah, a nurse practitioner, turned to doctor after doctor in their HMO. It was nearly a year before they got the diagnosis: spondylolisthesis, a spinal condition in which one vertebra slips over another. Along with pain, it can cause deformity of the spine, narrowing of the spinal cord and compression of nerve roots.

While it was not clear if Gabriella’s condition was injury related, congenital or from some other cause, it was serious enough that she would need surgery to fuse the low spine. The challenge was finding a reputable surgeon with pediatric expertise.

Deborah, who is also a licensed physician’s assistant, finally found pediatric neurosurgeon Michael Edwards. He consulted with orthopedic spinal surgeon Daniel Benson. At the time, Deborah was working for the Tuolumne County Health Department at the county jail. Sheriff’s Lt. Jim Childers, the jail commander and a Shriner, referred her to the Sacramento hospital, where it turned out that both Edwards and Benson were able to perform the surgery.

“Sometimes the good Lord opens doors for you,” Deborah says.

While Gabriella was involved with the decision about where to have surgery, the choice was easy after they toured the Sacramento facility. “Mom,” she said, “this is where I want to go.”

A top student, Gabriella chose to check in during spring break so she would miss a minimum of school. As luck would have it, the surgery date fell on her 13th birthday.

The hospital staff went all out decorating their young patient’s room and even the recovery room in celebration of her special day. “You can’t believe what they did for her,” says Deborah. “We were so overwhelmed by love and joy.”

The team also ensured that the entire family – Deborah, Gabriella’s father Michael and her younger sister, Allison—was included in the activities and felt cared for and welcome.

The surgery was so successful that Gabriella was able to return to cheerleading. Three years later when Gabriella, then a Summerville High School student, returned to have hardware removed from her spine, the operation fell on her 16th birthday. Again, the hospital staff went all out.

“It’s just a wonderful group of people,” says Deborah. “Anyone who works with children should tour this hospital. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

Even more beautiful: All of Gabriella’s care was provided free – surgery, pre- and post-operative care, blood testing, physical therapy, radiology services, prosthetic fittings and supplies, and clinical appointments for years to follow.

Since Gabriella’s surgeries, the family has been involved in Shriners fundraisers and helped with annual screening clinics. Gabriella coordinated one of these clinics for her high school senior project.

Now 24, Gabriella in December earned her master’s degree in arts and education, digital teaching and learning from Azusa Pacific University in San Diego. She is working as a tutor and visiting teacher for the San Diego Unified School District while seeking a full-time teaching job.

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors

Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson March 15, 2011 08:48